I went out and rode the two Hyosung bikes. The Indian distributor, newcomer Garware Motors, intends to launch the bikes by March-April 2011 with as many as ten dealers covering the major cities.
The Korean bikes may not have the aura and history of the Japanese or Italian bikes but that doesn't necessarily make them worse bikes. The GT650R's V-Twin is based on the Suzuki SV650. This pretty much determines the nature and feel of the powertrain.
It isn't an all-out sportsbike because it needs a more powerful, more highly-tuned engine to do that. You have to remember that when Ducati competed in the Supersport 600cc class against the Japanese online fours, it used the 749, a 750cc v-twin. The 650cc V-Twin, then, isn't going to set a racetrack on fire. If the track is in Europe that is. India is uncharted territory in the mid-displacement market. We have nothing in there and that means the first mover has the opportunity to set the tone for the market. Will Hyosung be first? Bajaj have now been threatening to unleash the Ninja 650, itself a 650 twin, in India. So this remains an open question.
In the real (Indian) world, the GT is fast enough, adept enough and turns heads. This it will do without fail until we see enough faired bikes to become jaded, er, more mature. The SV650 is a legend. Everything I've read about it says that it is a sparkling example of a motorcycle that brilliantly brings together a happy engine, an eager chassis in a rider-friendly motorcycle. It isn't a motorcycle you'll remember for all the time when you scared the pants off yourself. But you'll love it for the relentless string of thoroughly enjoyable riding experiences you will have with it.
This is where I think the Hyosung will fall a little short. It's handling is secure but not something you'll recount to friends. It looks neat, but it's not going to go on a poster. The engine sounds gruff and purposeful but not evocative. It's a great step up from our 220s but is a waypoint on to something else, not a stop. It should be reliable, but that is a should, not a will because I simply do not enough about the GT or Hyosung to say anything on the subject.
I should take a step back at this point and clarify that the GT650R slots into a category of under-rated but usually very likeably and realistic mid-displacement sportsbikes that play second-fiddle to the likes of the CBR600RR and the R6 is image and performance terms. They have their own charm - they remember that the street is where the sportsbikes tend to spend a majority of the time and being overtly committed to the racetrack - as the R6/CBR do - isn't something that makes for effortless daily riding.
I should also tell you something intrinsic to V-twins here. They're never going to be as smooth as inline-fours. I find it a little strange that we seem to desire big performance but are unwilling to pay its price. Stress an engine for performance and two natural outcomes result - vibration and lower economy. There's no getting away from this. But that's a whole different topic. The point simply is that the inline four hum, smoothness and the clear howl at revs is something V-Twins cannot do. If that's what you're looking for, the GT650 - and indeed any other V-Twin you care to name - will always feel vibey and sound agricultural at lower revs. When a V-Twin gets it right though - I have two blog posts simmering on this (soon, soon) - they're glorious. Every bit as evocative as the Europeans make them out be in their gleaming magazines.
Back to reality, then. Garware promises excellent service and proper spares supplies. Which should allay the fears of those who got their fingers singed in the Hyosung experience last time round. Most people buying the Hyosung will have a tremendous couple of years until they upgrade to something bigger. Only then will they gain the reference they need to put the GT in context.
The ST7 on the other hand, is just plain strange. For a format as well understood and easily grasped as the cruiser, the orient continues to have serious trouble troubling Harleys as the dominant cruiser brand. The Americans have been making cruisers for over a hundred years now and it would appear that the oriental obsession with moving forward hurts them in this niche. Where the Americans happily churn our motorcycles that look old when brand new, the others can't figure out how to do this.
The ST7 on the surface has all the right elements. Chrome? Giant handlebar? Forward pegs? Low seat? It's all there. And yet you will always know that parked next to a beatup dusty Sportster it'll look worse off. Why? Whoever can answer the question accurately and tangibly stands to make a giant pot of consultancy cash - from every manufacturer trying to get into the cruiser market. Inasmuch, the ST7 is as good a cruiser as anything that's come out of Japan. As usual the Korean grasp of styling is beginning to come good - but it isn't all there yet. They've got the bike substantially right, but there are bits where proportions or lines are mildly out of whack. But I did call the bike strange, and not because of the styling.
Part of the problem is the engine. The engine is a long-stroke version of the GT's V-Twin but with a 50-odd-cc displacement advantage. This means that despite the stroke, the torque-boosting tune, it remains too eager to rev. Performance is thoroughly enjoyable but the nature of it doesn't fit neatly. You end up bouncing off the rev-limiter when you should be cresting a tsunami sized wave of torque at ridiculously low revs. You begin to appreciate the performance and notice the incongruence of it vis-a-vis the format at the exact same moment. Uh oh.
Here's the thing. I think that while the informed enthusiast will probably by-pass these bikes, there will be enough takers for the first few years. In which time the Korean brand will find it's place. Will it become a Hyundai? Or will it remain in some sort of premium limbo we will have to see. Hyosung will plan to price the bikes aggressively. I understand the bikes are to be priced at under Rs 5 lakh for the GT and Rs 6.5-7 lakhs for the ST7. Is this aggressive enough? I'm not sure. A relative unknown brand like Hyosung, with some - and not all positive - history in India needs a peg to stand on. This will, initially, have to be price.
This is also dangerous because price is a game that recognizes no exclusivity or continuum. The high yen will deter the Japanese from lowering pricing beyond a point but what if the yen falls? Also, how big must the difference in price be for you to pick a Korean motorcycle over an equivalent Japanese motorcycle?
The Hyosung adventure part 2 will be a ferocious test of Garware Motors' resolve, vision and understanding of the Indian motorcycle market. The company has no recent history in the automotive business and are very much bright-eyed and bushy-tailed - and I mean this in the nicest, most encouraging way possible. Will this effervescence translate into a fast-moving target that the Japanese will have to constantly worry about? I hope so. But there's tough days ahead for this fledgling motorcycle company.